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opinion

[META] The Flavor Text Roundtable on Avatar Secrets

Over at my new favorite blog earlier this week, the authors held the first Flavor Text Roundtable, a critique of Ramona Pringle’s Avatar Secrets, a geeky girl-oriented version of a self-help/relationship advice website. In the interest of full disclosure, I am typically quite positive about self-help in comparison with many of my academic, fannish, and aca-fannish friends. I’m an Oprah viewer, as well as O magazine reader (let’s be really honest and admit I once spent 8 Euro, then the equivalent of about 15 US dollars, on O magazine before a transatlantic flight), and I have a long-standing love affair with memoirs from the “Addiction/Recovery” section of my local bookstore.

However.

I quickly lose patience when I get the sense that a space of relative intellectual freedom and experimental identity exploration within digital culture is being converted into a profit machine (original Facebook, I’m looking at you). This is not because I’m so hopelessly naïve as to believe in a tech-utopian vision of the future, but rather because I refuse to accept that our conversion from users, fans, and readers, into market research subjects ought to be expedited. Norm at Flavor Text summarizes it best:

“But seeing search-engine optimized self-actualization drivel isn’t appealing to me, even when it’s dressed up in sometimes painful stories of learning how to play an MMO. While our internet dragons may not be easily understood by the mainstream media, the writing about games by gamers is almost devastatingly honest and straight-forward. My mister, when asked, described WoW bloggers’ motivation as ‘I love this so I am going to present what I think about it for free because I want other people to love it, too.’ I cannot help but feel that this business venture is an outsider trying to commodify one of my sub-cultures, and getting it hopelessly off-kilter.”

Again, to return to my original Facebook comment, the change that frustrated me most about Facebook wasn’t actually the obviously egregious privacy violations. Rather, I was most irritated by the conversion of almost every category from text box to drop down menu full of suggestions. Movies? My taste in movies? I’d love to talk about my taste in movies, yes, sure to people who are only kind of my friends. I’d love to talk about it in sentences, with references to the multiple origins of my interest in x or y. I would not love to fill out your survey about whether or not I indeed liked Inception, thus confirming your suspicion that…er…the film catered to tastes apparently common within my milieu.

Thankfully, I already have a place to do that, one which is at least more slowly transitioning from text box into a series of yes/yes questions about how much I’m enjoying my experience. WoW bloggers do, as well, and they can better help people seeking community through the game by continuing the excellent work so many of them are already doing, than can someone at the outskirts who wants to reduce the complexity of the experience to an algorithm of simple avatar identification, and the inaccurate assumption that the game works as a substitute for all-important RL interactions.

Although I do not currently play an MMO myself, I believe that media fans in general, and particularly feminist-identified media fans like myself, ought to forge and maintain alliances with gamers because of our shared stakes in a digital culture in which we can all intellectually, emotionally, and even “actually,” whatever that means, thrive. My personal mantra is about text boxes, but the more general principle is about people speaking for themselves. There’s nothing wrong at the core of the idea of self-help or dating services, but when these are presented in a way that reduces the complex and constantly evolving community they claim to want to address and serve, it is important to make clear that this is not what’s happening.

It’s great that Pringle and others with entrepreneurial interests are excited about the stories they hear about gamers and the cool community they’re building, but, as it is with any fandom or community, it’s better to start by lurking, listening, and asking questions, rather than making sure, a la movie!Divya Narendra, that getting there first is everything. It isn’t worth it.

[META] Why, yes, sloppy journalism does provoke me, why do you ask?

Every now and then, an article catches my eye from the mainstream press (or in this case, the GLBT press) about a presumed connection between slash fan fiction and gay romance novels.

Most recently I noticed this article, W4M4M, in the online edition of “OUT”. And I got really annoyed.

I’ve yet to read an article (outside fandom) on this topic that included anything approaching solid reporting on what is presumed to be a trend — that gay romance is the next thing in the romance publishing industry. (That sweeping statement is verbatim from another poorly researched article, this one from December 2009 in “LA Weekly”.)

The OUT article also makes some pretty sweeping and unsupported assertions about who writes gay romance, and who reads it.

If I were writing such an article? Here are some of the, you know, ACTUAL FACTS I’d try to nail down before publishing:

First of all, is gay romance really the Next Big Thing in romance publishing? The OUT article mentions one publishing house, and a very outdated study of slash writers and readers. And no statistics.

My cursory google search turns up, for example, the entry “Romance Novels” from GLBTQ.com. This gives a fascinating list of famous gay romance, lesbian romance, and other non-straight romance books going back years. Maybe talking to the authors of those books, or their publishers, about the trends they see might be a good place to start?

Or, what about the big name heterosexual romance publishers? They would know what’s trendy. This website, The Passionate Pen, lists dozens of romance publishers. Again — cursory google search by me. Took five seconds. All those companies have PR people. Who have phones and email.

Further things to check: What about the traditional GLBT niche publishers, like the well-known Alyson? How are they doing with romance lines? Real sales and circulation figures? Just a thought.

What about the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books? They’ve written about gay romance and lesbian romance, I’ll bet.

The OUT article also annoyed me with its amateur psychologizing about why in the world straight women would want to write gay porn. Yes, the article included an interview with two authors, but are those authors typical? And what about the presumed connection to slash? No documentation. At all.

Anecdote posing as journalism does not do this “trend story” justice. At all.

In 2009 there was a rather heated controversy, which I followed from a distance, about the changes in the rules for the Lambda Awards, which are literary awards given to GLBT fiction. This online discussion was only the tip of a possible iceberg to be explored in terms of documenting the author pool for stories about queer people (whether romance or Some Other Genre), the markets for such stories, and who’s reading them and buying them.

Fascinating and important questions were raised during that controversy about authorial voice, authenticity, the degree of realism and research needed in fiction, and the ethical questions that arise when writing about a culture or subculture different from the author’s own.

I have more questions than answers at this point, obviously. What do I seek? Good solid fact-finding on this story, please. Actual evidence for trends, including statistics — not just the reporter’s anecdotes and the repetition of gossip.

More TK.